Kindle Edition, 306 pages
Published: August 2, 2016 by Doubleday
Literary Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2017), National Book Award for Fiction (2016), The Rooster – The Morning News Tournament of Books (2017), Kirkus Prize Nominee for Fiction (2016), Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction (2016)
Whitehead’s dark, brilliant novel takes us through the looking glass into an alternative version of the pre-Civil War South — a pastiche of our country’s brutal history of racism, before and after slavery. It is not for the faint of heart. I talked to several people on Facebook who suffered nightmares while reading it. This is, oddly enough, a fitting tribute to this book, which takes you to dark places while enticing you with the beauty of its language.
Mild Spoilers Ahead:
The first quarter of the novel feels like straightforward historical fiction. It’s set on a Georgia cotton plantation in the 1840s. Cora, granddaughter of a woman kidnapped from Africa, struggles to defend her small garden — it was inherited from her mother, who escaped the plantation. While exploring Cora’s determination to carve out a sense of autonomy and dignity amid ramshackle slave huts, we see both the brutality of whites toward the slaves and the cruelty of slaves to each other. Cora finds herself ostracized, banished by her fellow slaves to a cabin occupied by women who are considered mentally unstable. There, for the first time, she finds love and mutual support.
Caesar, a slave who recently arrived from Virginia, offers a glimmer of hope, and he and Cora run away together. Here the story takes a different turn. The road to freedom proves to be a literal underground railroad; they board a boxcar pulled by a locomotive in a subterranean tunnel. This strange, labyrinthine railroad tunnel is continually shifting, shutting down stops when they’re discovered by authorities.
Cora’s journey takes her to alternate versions of mid-nineteenth century North and South Carolina. The Carolinas are voluntarily moving away from slavery. In South Carolina the government is buying slaves and liberating them. They’ve established programs to provide living accommodations, paid work, education, and health care to the former slaves. Cora revels in her newfound freedom and dignity until she realizes this is merely a more benign form of slavery. Among other things, this part of the story lightly touches on eugenics and the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Next Cora arrives in North Carolina, which is creating a shiny new world free of slavery. But whites fear being outnumbered by emancipated blacks, so they’ve developed a final solution to this dilemma.
Eventually Cora finds a truer form of freedom — and a chance at love and a sense of belonging — in a black farming community. But their difficult coexistence with neighboring whites poses a looming threat.
One of this novel’s accomplishments is that, by reshaping US history into a world that is — in many ways — unfamiliar, it forces us to view its horrors with fresh eyes. The book also explores some of the myriad permutations of racism in our history: the unfettered brutality of plantation life and lynchings, malfeasance cloaked in efforts to improve black people’s lives, a pious yearning to enlighten the “savages.” It also looks at the harm people who are being persecuted do to each other. Ultimately it looks toward a hopeful but uncertain future — a future that, in our time, is still evolving.
Have you read this book? What do you think?